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Interview: Sou Fujimoto

Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto talks to Hans Ulrich Obrist and Julia Peyton-Jones about the centrality of sketching and modelling to his architecture

Sou Fujimoto founded his Tokyo-based practice in 2000. He has created several notable projects, such as the Final Wooden House, the NA House, and Musashino Art University Museum & Library (completed in 2010). He was awarded AR’s Emerging Architecture prize three times in a row (2005-7), a winning streak only curtailed by joining the judging panel in 2008. As the designer of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, we asked the two co-directors of the gallery, Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist, to quiz the Japanese architect about how he expresses his ideas visually

Julia Peyton-Jones: How important was the process of drawing for you at the start of your career?

Sou Fujimoto: For me, drawing is an endless process of trial-and- error to give form to the vague architectural inspirations that fill my brain. You could say that drawing is like having a dialogue with oneself. Earlier in my career, when I thought that there was no outlet, I still believed that the ideas behind my drawings would lead to something in the future, so I continued with my exploration. Some of them did become the basis for work later on in my career, but I didn’t know that at the time, of course. And I carried on sketching regardless.

JPJ: Do you have a preferred way of working? How do you see the relationship between drawings and models in your practice?

SF: I prefer to use simple means, such as words, sketches, models and discussions with my team, when I proceed with a new project. I may see a way forward when I’m sketching or it may be when we are making lots of highly conceptual models that I begin to see a solution. New possibilities may emerge when I’m having discussions with my staff. Whatever the method I may employ, it is essential that I try to externalise what is inside me during these creative moments. Sketches, models, words and discussions − we become aware of their true meanings or possibilities only when ideas are fully externalised.

Concept Sketch

A sketch for the 2013 Serpentine Pavilion shows architectural form emerging from the process of mark-making

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Some architects begin with a sketch and work it up from there. But you have said that what matters to you is the process, the small parts of architecture, the various activities that take place before the actual building starts taking shape. Could you talk a little about the way you develop your ideas?

SF: When I draw or make models, the goal is not to try to arrive at definitive architectural forms. On the contrary, I try to understand architecture through the movements or activities of people or the spirit of places that is likely to inspire their movements or activities. Ambiguity, moreover, begets fluidity, which in turn begets manifold interpretations, as well as organic ideas inspired by the surrounding environment. It is for this reason that my sketches are mostly made up of loose lines. Drawing, you could say, is a process of waiting for architecture to slowly emerge out of these nebulous shapes that precedes definitive shapes, or out of looser or freer orders that precedes definitive orders, teasing out and nurturing architecture.

JPJ: Is the transition from drawings to three-dimensional models a smooth one for you? Do your plans change when moving back and forth from paper to models?

SF: Drawing and making models progress side by side. Transforming vague models, born out of sketches and words, into something more substantial, such as three-dimensional models, is always very exciting. This is because things never progress the way we expect them to. As something else emerges, we finally understand that we do have the breadth and depth necessary to complete a project. The toing-and-froing between pure concepts or sketches and more tangible forms of architecture eventually lays down a foundation for the most powerful architecture.

Energy: Future Visions


Energy: Future Visions

The newly curated exhibition: ‘Energy’ on display at the Maxxi Museum in Rome features the studio’s contribution to future visions of energy distribution

HUO: You have spoken about seeking to create an interaction or blurring between interior and exterior in your architecture. How do these ideas figure in your drawings?

SF: My sketches are full of blurry, hazy, random shapes. I see them as prototypes of places and spaces. Ideas become very important when I try to transform these archetypal images into three-dimensional models or architectural forms. As an architect, I must invent new ways of making architecture and new ways of making spaces as tangible ideas. I use sketches, models, words and discussions − whatever method available at hand − to find what that may be.

JPJ: Your corpus of work involves a recurrent use of the grid and the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion is an excellent example of this. Why do you choose to work with the grid and why is it such an important element in your work?

SF: The grid is the most primitive form of order, as well as being the most transparent. To rediscover and reinvent the grid architecturally is the big challenge. If you can incorporate ambiguity and fluidity into the grid that is primitive and authentic, then that’s very exciting. We might say that this is the moment when nature meets the artificial world. I want to find new orders that surpass the primitive order. I think that’s why the grid always shows up in my buildings.

Serpentine Pavilion 2013

A render of the pavilion demonstrating the structure’s intangibility. The grid dissolves into the sky, materialising Fujimoto’s ideas about nature and artifice (click for larger image)

HUO: You were born in the countryside and moved to Tokyo. Has your drawing been influenced by this transition as much as your thinking about architecture? What is the relationship between geometric and natural forms in your designs?

SF: You will find two archetypal scenes that define what is at the heart of my architecture − one is the natural order, which reflects the forest and nature of my hometown, and the other is the artificial world, which reflects the complexity and richness of the city of Tokyo. The two orders are contradictory but they are inexplicably fused in my mind. Likewise, I want to create a place for people, which is poised between nature and the artificial world. The future for me is where these natural and artificial geometries come together. I want to find the fertile meeting ground for their complexity as well as their simplicity. I feel that this is the premonition of our future that today’s world is up against; they also reflect my own archetypal scenes.

HUO: Do you have an unrealised project or Utopian dream that you would like to realise one day?

SF: You could say my Primitive Future House is Utopian because it can never be fully realised. Although its essence has manifested itself in architecture as many different forms, its complexity is profound precisely because it has not been realised. If you have an important conceptual project, it might be just as exciting to seek out the endless possibilities within it, rather than try to build it. At the same time, if we are ever given the chance to realise such a project, we can create architecture that will exceed our imagination. Finally, however wildly imaginative a project may be, it is important to believe that one day it will be built − such a conviction can become a powerful source of energy for great architecture. Even if it is never realised, we must not fall victim to pessimism but continue to believe that our imaginative endeavours will bear fruit in one form or another someday in the future.

Primitive House Model

Sou Fujimoto’s unrealised Primitive Future House, explored in model form, layers planar forms to create a stepped architecture

Translated by Yuki Sumner

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